Rutgers' long wait was almost over ... then coronavirus happened

Yahoo Sports

Steve Pikiell chose two rallying cries last summer to ingrain into his players’ psyches.

They hang from the walls of the Rutgers basketball office. They greet the Scarlet Knights when they enter their locker room. They appeared at the top of every scouting report. 

“3/15/20,” the date that the NCAA tournament selection committee was supposed to unveil this year’s field. And “sacrifice,” what would be necessary to finally end the longest NCAA tournament drought among power-conference programs.

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The same messages that helped fuel the awakening of Rutgers basketball this season now stand as a haunting reminder of a dream achieved, then denied. The Scarlet Knights were just days away from spending Selection Sunday celebrating the program’s first NCAA tournament bid in 29 years when the event was abruptly canceled on Thursday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

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“My team is very disappointed,” Pikiell told Yahoo Sports. “They had achieved something that hadn't been done at Rutgers in a long time. To finally break through, in the best league in the country, was truly special, but to not be able to finish it off is bittersweet.”

The cancellation of the college basketball postseason was no doubt a gut punch for every NCAA tournament-bound team, but the abrupt ending had to be especially devastating for a handful of programs in the midst of special seasons. Who knows when San Diego State will again win 30 games? Or when Baylor will spend most of league play as the nation’s top-ranked team? Or when Dayton will again be poised to claim a No. 1 seed? 

No one had worse timing than Rutgers, which hadn’t been nationally relevant in basketball before this season since Cheers was still on the air and Pearl Jam was still relatively unknown. Haunted by scandal under Mike Rice and losing under Eddie Jordan, the Scarlet Knights were a punchline when Pikiell took over in 2016.

Behind an elite defense and some timely buckets from guards Geo Baker and Ron Harper Jr., Rutgers emerged as an unlikely success story in Pikiell’s fourth season, capturing the interest of New Jersey basketball fans and turning the RAC into a hostile venue again. The Big Ten was historically strong this season, yet the Scarlet Knights won 20 games for just the second time since 1991 and for the first time finished above .500 in their league.

Steve Pikiell and his Scarlet Knights players were likely taking Rutgers to the NCAA tournament for the first time 29 years. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Steve Pikiell and his Scarlet Knights players were likely taking Rutgers to the NCAA tournament for the first time 29 years. (Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

“We were very confident going into the postseason that we could play with anybody,” Pikiell said. “After going through the gauntlet of our league, the Michigan States and Marylands and all the different styles teams play, we felt confident we were ready for the tournament and we were going to win some games.”

The coronavirus pandemic was scarcely on Pikiell’s radar until this past week when infectious disease experts began advising against all large public gatherings. Pikiell took a business-as-usual approach with his team even after the NCAA barred spectators from its tournament and the NBA halted play indefinitely in the wake of Rudy Gobert testing positive for the virus

Rutgers was warming up for its second-round Big Ten tournament game against Michigan on Thursday when athletic director Pat Hobbs informed Pikiell 14 minutes before tipoff that the event had been cancelled. Within the hour, college basketball ground to a halt as conferences across America followed suit.

When Rutgers boarded a flight home from Indianapolis on Thursday afternoon, Pikiell still had hope that the NCAA would either postpone its tournament or hold off on a decision for a few more days to better assess the spread of the virus. He was surprised to learn the event had been cancelled altogether when notifications and texts popped up on his players’ phones as the plane descended in preparation for landing. 

“My players knew the news before I did,” Pikiell said. “I was hoping it was just speculation, but my sports information director had the NCAA website up. When I saw it there, then it became real.”

For Pikiell, the news was actually a double whammy. His daughter Brooke is a walk-on guard on a 26-win Northwestern team that won the Big Ten this season.

“Dad, my season’s over,” Brooke said despondently when Pikiell called Sunday evening. 

“I know, my season's over too,” her father commiserated. 

Now Pikiell is back in Piscataway with nowhere to go. He can’t travel to scout high school prospects because no one is playing. He also may not see his players for awhile because Rutgers is conducting classes online until the threat of the virus diminishes.

That leaves Pikiell plenty of time to sit in his office, gaze at the “3/15/20” and “sacrifice” signs on the wall and reflect on what might have been. On one hand, Pikiell is sad his players won’t get to experience the NCAA tournament stage this month. On the other hand, Pikiell knows that the NCAA made a responsible choice canceling the tournament rather than putting people at risk. 

“In a way it’s fitting because now we’re making another sacrifice to make sure we keep people healthy and we don't spread this virus,” Pikiell said. 

“Basketball is very important to me, but this is even more important than basketball. We all have to do our part.” 

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